Name:  William Magear "Boss" Tweed

See a full text list of Biographies


Born:  April 3, 1823
Died:  April 12, 1878
Complete HarpWeek Biography:
William "Boss" Tweed was leader of the powerful Democratic political machine in New York City known as the Tweed Ring. His name and visual caricature became synonymous with political corruption, power, and greed, an association that remains potent even today. He was born in New York City to Eliza Magear Tweed and Richard Tweed, a chair-maker. Young Tweed learned chair-making and worked at various jobs while a teenager before becoming a bookkeeper in a brush factory. He married the owner's daughter, Mary Jane Skaden, in 1844, and became his new father-in-law's business partner.

As a young man, Tweed joined several fraternal societies, including the Odd Fellows, the Masons, and the Order of United Americans, an anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant group (ironic, given his later identification with Irish-Catholic immigrants). In 1849 he was instrumental in establishing a volunteer fire company, Americus Engine Company No. 6, for which he became foreman. The fire company's symbol was a Bengal tiger, which later became the symbol of the Tammany Hall Democrats. His membership in those organizations functioned as a springboard into the political world. During the 1840s he shifted his political allegiance from the anti-Catholic American-Republican party to the Whigs before settling down with the Democrats.

In 1850 the Democrats nominated Tweed for assistant alderman from the Seventh Ward; he lost, but the next year won election as alderman. In 1852 he was elected to his only term in the U.S. Congress. Instead of running for reelection, he ran unsuccessfully for alderman. It was at this time that Tweed began working actively for Tammany Hall, the leading Democratic political organization in the city. In 1857 he became a school commissioner by popular ballot and a fire commissioner by appointment. In 1858 he won a seat on the city's board of supervisors, where he would serve, often as board president, until 1870.

Also in the late 1850s, Tweed and his associates took command of Tammany Hall from Mayor Fernando Wood. During the Civil War Tweed dominated Tammany Hall and Democratic city politics, serving as chair of the local Democratic Central Committee as well as chair of Tammany's general committee and its "grand sachem." He was first person to occupy the two highest offices in Tammany Hall at the same time. The real source of his power came from his control over the nomination process: in exchange for office, politicians turned over their patronage-granting privileges to him; which, in turn, made civil servants beholden to the "boss" which made civil servants, as well as the elected officials, beholden to the "boss." His patronage power was direct in the case of the streets department for which he served as deputy commissioner from 1863 to 1870. He increased his political power by greatly expanding the number of patronage positions in the streets department.

Tweed used his formal and informal authority to gain financial profit for himself, his cohorts, and the Democratic party. They received kickbacks from companies that were granted exclusive contracts to provide the city with goods and services. Tweed held controlling interest in the city's official printer and its paper goods supplier, which sold their goods and services to the city government at tremendously inflated prices, and served on the board of directors of the Third Avenue Railway Company, the Harlem Gas Light Company, the Brooklyn Bridge Company, and as president of the Guardian Savings Bank. Although he no legal training, Judge George Barnard certified him as a lawyer. His law firm then extorted "legal fees" from companies doing business with the city.

Other leaders of the Tweed Ring included Richard Connolly, the city comptroller, and Peter Sweeny, the county chamberlain (treasurer), with Mayor Oakey Hall and Mayor then Governor John Hoffman providing respectable fronts for them. Estimates of the amount of illegal profits procured by the Tweed Ring range from $30 million to $200 million. Tweed used some of his share to make real estate investments, becoming one of New York City's largest landowners by the late 1860s. He also spent lavishly, living in a mansion on 5th Avenue and wearing a large diamond stud on his shirt.

Expanding upon his urban base, Tweed entered state politics, winning election to the state senate in 1867 and reelection in 1869. He used subterfuge and bribery to secure passage of favorable legislation, including aid for parochial schools, benefits for the Eire Railroad (for which he received stock, cash payments, and a seat on the board of directors), and a revised charter for New York City. The 1870 charter placed control over the city's finances more firmly in the hands of the Tweed Ring and it established the post of commissioner of public works, to which Governor Hoffman appointed Tweed. Although pilloried by reformers, the Tweed Ring found support among the working class, many of whom were immigrants, by providing jobs, basic necessities like food and fuel, establishing the Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital, and expanding the number of public baths, almshouses, and orphanages in the city. In less than three years (1869-1871), however, New York City's debt tripled and its taxes rose accordingly.

The downfall of the Tweed Ring came when certain Tammany Hall members, disgruntled for failing to receive promotions, leaked incriminating evidence to the New York Times, which published a series of damning articles beginning in July 1871. The pages of the Times and Harper's Weekly, particularly in the editorial commentary of George William Curtis and the political cartoons of Thomas Nast, relentlessly exposed the allegations of malfeasance and corruption against Tweed and his allies. In October 1871 the state named Tweed and several contractors in a civil suit for illegally siphoning off $6 million of public monies. Within a few weeks, however, the electorate returned Tweed to the state senate for another term. He was finally arrested on December 16 for fraud and failure to audit the bills that contractors submitted to the city. At that point, he resigned as commissioner of public works and was removed from his Tammany Hall leadership positions. A new city charter eliminated his other offices, and he was barred from attending state senate sessions. In February and again in October 1872 criminal charges were filed against him.

The first trial against Tweed resulted in a hung jury, but the second ended with a conviction on misdemeanor charges. The sentence was a $12,500 fine and 13 years in jail, which in 1875 an appeals court deduced to $250 and one year. Since he had already served 19 months in the city jail on Blackwell's Island, he was released. The police, however, rearrested him the next day to stand trial on the civil charges and additional pending criminal charges. He could not raise the $3 million bail, so ended up in Ludlow Street jail. He was granted privileges and liberties not allowed to other inmates, such as carriage rides and visits to his home and those of his children. On December 4, 1875, he escaped while on such a sojourn and hid out in New Jersey.

In March 1876 the civil jury found Tweed guilty and liable for over $6 million. Learning of the judgment, he fled to Cuba, then Spain, where in September officials arrested and deported him, mistakenly thinking he was a child abductor. Back in New York by late November, he was placed in the Ludlow Street jail again. In poor health, Tweed gave the attorney general, Charles Fairchild, a full confession as part of a deal for his release. Fairchild, however, changed his mind and Tweed remained in prison. The former political boss next testified before a Board of Alderman investigation, detailing how the ring operated, but he received no pardon for his cooperation. Four months later he died in Ludlow Street jail of heart failure caused by a pneumonia.

Sources consulted: American National Biography; Encyclopedia of New York City, ed. Kenneth T. Jackson.











Website design © 2001-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content © 1998-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to